UNITED KINGDOM: Night of Witness is a night to remember
By John Pontifex
18 May 2012
The plight of Christians persecuted for their faith was the focus of prayer, song and reflection at the first-ever Night of Witness held at Westminster Cathedral.
Bishops – both from the UK and overseas – led yesterday’s (Thursday, 17 May) event at which Christians from countries marked by persecution played central roles in raising awareness of ongoing acts of religious oppression.
Organised by Aid to the Church in Need, the Night of Witness began with more than 1,000 people filling Westminster Cathedral for a Mass highlighting the importance of religious freedom, celebrated by Bishop Declan Lang of Clifton, chairman of the international affairs department of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.
People leaving the service gathered on the cathedral piazza for an outdoor rally which began with Archbishop Vincent Nichols ofWestminsterwelcoming special guests Archbishop Joseph Coutts of Karachi, Pakistan, and Coptic Catholic Bishop Joannes Zakaria of Luxor, Egypt.
Listen to Archbishop Joseph Coutts of Pakistan's address during the Vigil of Light
Listen to Bishop Joannes Zakaria of Egypt's address during the Vigil of Light
Among other senior clergy attending the event were Emeritus Archbishop Kevin McDonald of Southwark, Mgr Keith Newton, Ordinary of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, Archbishop Athanasius Toma Dawod, Head of the Syrian Orthodox Church in the UK and Emeritus Anglican Bishop of Rochester, Dr Michael Nazir-Ali.
During the rally, Dr Nazir-Ali gave a speech stressing the importance of religious freedom, comparing and contrasting problems in the UK with those in Egypt, Pakistan, Iran and elsewhere.
He said: “We are approaching a time in this country where we will have to struggle for fundamental freedoms for Christians to manifest our beliefs and maintain our Christian institutions.
“We will face this – we are already facing this – in this country and so the example of our brothers and sisters from elsewhere will I hope sustain us.”
With Catholic performance poet Sarah de Nordwall acting as MC, the outdoor event included performances by the West End Gospel Choir, Catholic pop group ooberfuse, singers Helen Munt and Hammad Baily and the Eliot Smith Dance Company.
The Eliot Smith Dance Company perform new work Persecuted and Forgotten
Helen Munt sings her song 'I'm right here'
Bishop Joseph Coutts of Pakistan and Bishop Joannes Zakaria of Egypt give a blessing to people in the piazza
Cherrie from ooberfuse performing at the Night of Witness
Anglican Bishop Michael Nazir Ali addresses the crowd in the piazza
Interspersed with the acts were a series of short videos about the persecuted Church produced by Aid to the Church in Need especially for the event.
The videos explored themes of persecution and its causes developed in Aid to the Church in Need ’s latest publication Christians and the Struggle for Religious Freedom which was launched at the event, complete with an introduction by leading UK media expert Dr Austen Ivereigh, co-founder of Catholic Voices.
The rally ended with a procession back into the cathedral fronted by a vast wooden cross with Pakistani Christians from Nelson in Lancashireand Wilson Chowdhry, chairman of the British Pakistani Christian Association.
Fr Martin Edwards, national ecclesiastical assistant, Aid to the Church in Need (UK) led a Vigil of Light, involving the Mysteries of Light from the Rosary in a bespoke service coordinated by Christian communications expert Primavera Quantrill.
Catholics with close links to countries where Christians are persecuted read accounts of the deaths of modern-day martyrs in Egypt, Iraq (Fr Ragheed Ghani), Pakistan (Shahbaz Bhatti), India (Fr Bernard Digal) and Nigeria (four-year-old Emmanuel Dilke, killed on Christmas Day).
Images of the martyrs were placed on easels with a candle lit in front of each one.
Involved in the liturgy were Dr Suha Rassam, of the charity Iraqi Christians in Need, Nigerian priest Fr Mark Odion, parish priest of Beckenham Hill, south-east London, UK Nigerian chaplain Fr Richard Offong, Indian priests Fr Francisco Rosario and Fr Thomas Parayadyil and Westminster diocese Ethiopian chaplain Fr Petros Gebremichael.
The Schola Cantorum of the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School, Holland Park, London, led the music, singing Tota Pulchra Es Maria, by Anton Bruckner and Olivier Messiaen organ music played by Matthew Burgess.
At the close of the service, Aid to the Church in Need's UK director, Neville Kyrke-Smith, said: “As Fr Werenfried van Straaten, Aid to the Church in Need’s founder, said, we are called to ‘dry the tears of the abandoned Jesus on the crosses of this century’.
“Through your charity – Aid to the Church in Need – you have done this, heart to heart with the suffering Church.”